LONDON — Really, it’s just an old handbag. Well made, obviously. A navy-blue lizard number with goldtone hardware. From Asprey of London. Circa 1990. The kind of sensible heirloom you might find wrapped in tissue in your grandmother’s closet, if Gran was posh.
This bag sold last week at Christie’s auction house in London for $8,125 — less because of the object than its provenance.
The tote was once owned — and wielded — by the formidable Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister, who deployed her accessories as sword and shield in her many political battles.
The Iron Lady was defined by her era-shaping conservative ideology, her union busting, her close relationship with U.S. President Ronald Reagan — and visually by her coifed hair, strand of pearls and “inevitable handbag,” which always contained a pen.
She was loved — is still loved — by conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic. And her name, too, still winds up Labour Party politicians, who denounce to this day the downsides of Thatcherism.
Christie’s last week presented its sale, “Mrs. Thatcher: Part III,” to coincide with the 40th anniversary of her rise to power.
You can scroll through the online catalogue. It is quite a thing: an intimate time capsule, a history of an iconic leader told through her stuff. It is a bit of a paw through Maggie’s attic — and who doesn’t like a proper garage sale?
The goods are not on public view, but squirreled away in the auction house’s basement vaults in the St. James quarter in London.
Adrian Hume-Sayer is Christie’s director of Private and Iconic Collections and Country Home Sales — and isn’t that the perfect name for the job.
The first two Christie’s sales of Thatcher’s personal effects, in 2015, garnered just north of $6.8 million, he said. This third one realized $1.4 million, with bidders from 36 countries and six continents.
Hume-Sayer said the 192 lots for sale last week came from a handful of beneficiaries and heirs, including one charity, which he declined to name.
Among the goods on offer:
● Pieces of Thatcher’s “uniform jewelry,” the ornaments she wore often, to Parliament and on trips abroad, including a gem-studded Van Cleef & Arpels brooch that sold for $65,000.
● A Falklands commemorative dish, a reminder for Thatcher devotees of her ferocity in the war over the Falkland Islands. That one fetched $1,140.
● And a typed — remember typewriters? — page of her engagements from Nov. 28, 1990, her last day in power as prime minister. The day begins at 7:45 a.m. with “Hair” and then goes on to list her farewell audience with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, her appearance at the House of Commons, then drinks with Sir Robin Butler and the words “Savoy Grill?” That piece of paper went for $13,800.
“Through the lens of her possessions, objects she handled every day, things she lived with, one gets a glimpse,” Hume-Sayer said. “There’s the face she presents to the world, and there’s a more private side.”
The auctioneer was 8 years old when Thatcher stepped down — was shoved, actually — from the prime minister’s post in 1990.
Baroness Thatcher died in 2013 at the age of 87, after a stroke. Challenged by dementia, unable to climb stairs at the end, she lived her last days in a suite at the Ritz Hotel in London, just a few blocks from the Christie’s auction house.
The auctioneer said the objects showed him, “there’s the very businesslike, very matter-of-fact Mrs. Thatcher. But there’s a softer side. She loved, for example, to collect porcelain.”
She also liked nice things.
And though she was characterized — and satirized — as a bit of a frump, she favored elegant, bespoke evening gowns from top design houses. Thatcher’s mother was a skilled seamstress.
In the material accompanying the auction, there was an account from Cynthia Crawford, Thatcher’s personal assistant, called “Crawfie” by the prime minister.
“Mrs. Crawford kept detailed diaries of what Thatcher wore, and when, together with which accessories. ‘When she went abroad I did everything,’ she explained [to Christie’s]. ‘We packed as little as possible — navy shoes or black shoes, and one pair of cream shoes, for instance.’ ”
The notorious Maggie T, at the height of her power, in the 1980s power-shoulder years, could work those handbags — there were three on sale.
Famously, she contributed to British political jargon, still in use today, from the Oxford English Dictionary: “to handbag, as: (of a woman politician) treat (a person, idea etc.) ruthlessly or insensitively.”
The BBC described Thatcher’s handbags as “a weapon wielded against opponents or unfortunate ministers.”
When she opened it up and pulled out her notes, watch out . . .
The British broadcaster noted that Lady Thatcher once told an interviewer: “Of course, I am obstinate in defending our liberties and our law. That is why I carry a big handbag.”